Lecture: Is there a difference between the human brain and an advanced robot?

Searching for a distinction between things which are made, and those who are born

In June 2017 I gave a lecture looking at whether the rapid pace of advances in robotics technology meant that soon there would be no fundamental distinction between man and machines. You can read my notes below:

Computer power is doubling approximately every 2 years. This has led to an exponential growth in the power of computing over more than 40 years.  Investment in AI is currently estimated at 12.5 billion US$ per annum.  Annual spending on robotics is estimated to reach 65 billion US$ by 2025.  These developments will have massive effects on employment. It is estimated that between 35% and 85% of current jobs are at risk of replacement by automation.

The computer company IBM has created an artificial intelligent system called Watson that is capable of extracting and analysing vast amounts of information from documents such as medical records, scientific papers and databases. Watson is currently being used in a many medical applications providing assistance on diagnosis and treatments options. Robot companions and assistants are being developed for many health and social care applications.

There appears to be no physical limit to the processing power of intelligent machines. This has led to anxieties about the development of superintelligent beings that might be hostile to human interests. If a physicalist understanding of the brain is adopted, that the human brain is merely composed of physical cells and wiring, then by definition the evil things that human beings have done may be replicated by machines. In other words there is a finite possibility that some time in the future a malevolent superintelligence will be created.

Traditionally animals, humans and machines have been thought of as three different kinds of beings. But now the boundaries between these beings are blurring and becoming confused.

There is a psychological movement from the machine to the human. We understand the working of the human brain by looking at machines, especially computing machines. Modern people increasingly understand themselves as machine-like. It is critically important to recognise the difference between a useful metaphor and a fundamental description or definition.There are many aspects of the human brain which are machine-like, but it is both false and incoherent to say that the brain is a machine.

At the same time there is a psychological movement from the human to the machine. We understand what it means to be an intelligent machine by looking at our own humanity. We impose our humanity onto the machine.  This is the psychological process of anthropomorphism. This means that when we abuse or torture a human like machine, we may damage our own humanity. There are some philosophers already arguing that intelligent machines should be regarded as persons and should be given rights of protection and of autonomy.

I wish to argue for an alternative perspective. Reality consists of more than just matter and energy. There is another foundational category of reality and that is not mind or consciousness but the personal. There is a profound difference between the interaction we have with material objects – an I-it relationship – and the interaction we have with other persons – an I-you relationship. In this way of thinking personhood is a category of reality that is foundational. Persons are not reducible to matter and energy and they are not limited to matter and energy – there is the possibility of spiritual persons.

The development of intelligent machines tends to blur the difference between the I-it and the I-you relationship. They are machines – things – but they seem to offer the possibility of an I-you relationship. However being a person is not the same as “intelligence” or processing power.

A related concept is the distinction between being made and being born. That which we make or create comes from our will and is therefore ours to mould and control. That which we give birth to – our children – comes as a gift from our being, and is equal in status and dignity to ourselves. We care for, nurture and educate our children but we cannot control or manipulate them. As intelligent machines become more human-like I believe we must maintain this distinction between being born and being made.


AI and robotic technologies are going to have a profound impact on many aspects of society, particularly in the areas of employment, social and healthcare, human relationships, and leisure activities. Exponentially increasing processing power will allow effective simulation of human behaviour and cognition, in both embodied and disembodied forms. This carries many positive opportunities as well as obvious potential for abuse, deception and manipulation of vulnerable humans. As intelligent machines become more human-like I believe we must maintain the distinction between an I-it and an I-you relationship and between beings that are made and those that are born.

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